Free Programming Languages for Tots and Kids

By Camille McCue, Sarah Guthals

Getting started with coding can be accomplished as early as age four or five, even before a child can read! Programming languages that use symbols, instead of words, can be especially helpful in coaching young children to build fundamental programming concepts.

The Foos

The Foos is a free, fun, and instructionally excellent coding game for tots. It’s available for desktop gameplay, as well as an app for both iOS and Android. The Foos are neighborhood buddies who live and work together in a colorful, animated city full of donut shops, construction sites, gourmet kitchens, and occasional visits to space! A pesky nuisance-maker, named Glitch, creates challenges for tots to solve, such as collecting crystals, or rescuing a puppy.

To solve a puzzle, your tot uses simple programming commands, presented and demonstrated visually, to move her character onscreen. Tots don’t need to be readers to engage in this coding game! Puzzles increase in difficulty, beginning with simple sequencing and directional orientation, to eventually requiring loops and conditionals to solve. An audio track and cute sound effects also provide clues to assist your young coder in solving each puzzle. An extensive collection of levels keeps kids busy, and learning, for hours.

The Foos coding for kids
The Foos is a symbol-based coding game, with hours of challenges. A great choice for tots!

Think & Learn Code-a-Pillar

Code-a-Pillar is a simple, fun, and free app that runs on iOS and Android devices. Its focus is encouraging young children to use directional command codes to navigate a caterpillar around a garden. Visual tiles for forward, turn, and a small number of other commands help novice coders think sequentially to accomplish tasks. An audio track helps provide additional guidance to users. For those interested in making a concrete connection to a robotic toy, a physical code-a-pillar is available (at a price) to accompany the app.

Code-a-Pillar for kids
Photo credit: Fisher Price
Code-a-Pillar trains tots to think sequentially, and offers a robotic toy option.

Daisy the Dinosaur

Daisy the Dinosaur is an adorably fun and free coding game for tots. It’s available as an app for iPads. Daisy is a friendly dinosaur who responds to coding commands to move around in her world. Commands are text-based and presented as tiles, but the limited number of commands keeps this a doable app even for “nearly” non-readers. This app has limited use time, but it’s a good entre to word-based tile coding.

Daisy the Dinosaur
Your tot can ease into simple, word-based code tiles to make Daisy dance in this free app.

Scratch Jr.

Scratch Jr. is a fabulous, free, symbol-based coding environment for young children. It’s available for both iOS and Android devices. Scratch Jr, as the name states, is a junior version of the full Scratch coding environment. The app provides a full-featured, easy-to-use playground environment for creating animated stories, interactive toys, and simple games.

It offers directional commands, loops, event handlers (“when Scratch Cat is touched, do this”), conditionals, messaging, and more. A large assortment of image and sound assets provides children a wide variety of options for character and scene creation. Scratch Jr. also permits sound recording and photo capture from your device! An additional bonus is that the interface can be switched to a handful of non-English versions, including Spanish.

Scratch jr. for Kids
Make stories, toys, and simple games in Scratch. Jr.’s symbol-based, tile coding environment!